THIS IS THE story of how karaoke, that quintessentially global entertainment, came to Noongar country in Western Australia in the 1990s and was transformed into Noongaroke, a twenty-first century version of corroboree events of bygone days. Noongar people engaging with karaoke created a contemporary process for cultural healing and wellbeing that dealt at a profound level with the anguished politics of death in their community. Leading the charge was the 'deadly Noongaroke singing DJ' Jim Morrison. Jim's parents, both from the stolen generations, survived to raise their large family whose members are now prominent in Noongar service organisations, politics and the arts in Perth. Jim generously shared his journey in an interview with my partner Darryl Kickett and myself that is quoted extensively here.
Noongar people are the traditional custodians of the south-west region of Western Australia. They bore the full force of settler invasion and colonisation: the deaths, dispossession, loss of land and culture, racism, segregation, removed children, forced assimilation and dire poverty within a rich country. What survived of their way of life was invisible to most outsiders: the ancient family lineages, connection to country, kinship values and obligations, hidden knowledge and rituals and elements of language.
Today most Noongar people live in city suburbs and country towns. Numbering over thirty thousand, they constitute the largest Aboriginal language group in Australia. Many identify as members of a distinct Noongar nation within the Australian settler state. In 2006, Noongar claimants won Australia's first and only successful native title claim over metropolitan lands. This was a rude shock for most West Australians who assumed there was no Noongar culture. In 2013, the West Australian government presented an offer intended to resolve native title claims across Noongar country but one of the negative effects has been to divide the Noongar community and encourage public racism based on fear and ignorance.
KARAOKE BEGAN AS a form of public singing using the simple technology of a microphone and sound box and a book of lyrics. Popularised in Japan in the 1970s it soon spread to South-East Asia and then further to become a global phenomenon. In her book Karaoke Culture (Open Letter, 2012), Dubravka Ugresic uses karaoke metaphorically to denote the 'unoriginality' of global culture that is repeated everywhere, endlessly and that encourages bad late-night performances like Bill Murray singing 'More Than This' in the movie Lost in Translation (2003).
In Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (Reaktion Books, 2007), Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco present a contrasting perspective. They describe karaoke as 'an interactive global network', a form of 'global traffic' with 'no centre or periphery' moving out in all directions. Like a fluid, karaoke takes on different forms as it 'rushes and trickles' through. Local people incorporate karaoke into their cultural traditions and imbue it with their own 'cultural-specific meanings and symbolisms'.
This is exactly what happened when karaoke came to Noongar country. Noongaroke was far more than a good night out; it was an inspired intervention to support grieving Noongar families during an unprecedented crisis of deaths in the community during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Noongaroke nights were performances of global culture enmeshed in Noongar ways of being and doing. Noongaroke merged karaoke technology and public singing with Noongar traditions and strategies of survival. The simple technology fitted neatly into family gatherings to mourn loved ones by providing an attractive way to sing and dance and to restore wellbeing in the manner of earlier corroboree events. It was this combination of the past in the present that powered Noongaroke.
Performance theorist Diana Taylor describes a similar process in Mexican village communities where contemporary performances are structured according to hidden ancient principles and relationships and how performers draw on this embodied knowledge as a repository of strategies for their current struggles and for envisioning new futures.
Jim Morrison started Noongaroke in the late 1990s after years of DJ'ing for Noongar fundraising events and working with street kids in Northbridge, the heart of Perth's club scene. His first intention was to raise funds for funerals and impoverished families. He recalls that Noongaroke quickly gathered a huge following: 'It grew and grew and grew, if you did a head count, you know, thousands and thousands of people have come through Noongaroke. There are people who were just there every night. They just love to sing. It's always a good atmosphere.'
In fact it was a unique atmosphere of pride and enjoyment from being together as Noongar people. Apart from sports carnivals and funerals there were few other community gatherings, although in early days corroborees had been a constant activity. This was due to a lack of resources – land, venues, funds – and an over-zealous police force.
SO WHAT WAS so Noongar about Noongaroke? We may as well ask what was not Noongar, apart from the equipment and the venues. The singers were all Noongar people and the audience was made up of their extended families. The atmosphere was relaxed, warm and friendly. Noongar colours – red, black and yellow – were everywhere to be seen in flyers, decorations, flags, coloured lights and clothing. The venues were rooms in hotels in Noongar suburbs that were private and 'Noongar comfortable'. Jim explains: 'Sadly we had to use a hotel because we don't own nothing. Aboriginal people don't own nothing. We don't have our own places.' Noongar values of respect replaced the usual impersonal rules for behavior at karaoke nights. Few people drank alcohol. Jim explains that 'there's a code of conduct based on respect: respect yourself, respect others, respect other people's property and respect other cultures. And that was the Kanya Code of Conduct, Kanya meaning, shame, behave yourself.' But Jim admits it would have been unusual if there weren't any problems because 'it's part of our culture. That's a culture thing. If we're going to disagree we're going to do it publicly so you accept it. But mostly, they'd never bring their fights to a fundraiser.'
And there were the unmistakable sounds of Noongar talk – the words, tones of voice and the accents – as families reminisced about the good and sad times and the texture of the singers' voices and their choices of nostalgic rock and country songs – 'Johnny B. Goode', 'Brown-eyed Girl', 'Neon Moon', 'Satin Sheets', 'Seven Spanish Angels' – from the Noongaroke Top Ten and a book called Lubbli Songs. And there were Noongar people dancing – young girls and women in groups and couples skilfully negotiating their way around them. Jim explained: 'When you go to a karaoke night, it's mostly singing. But ours was about singing and dancing…you had to do it – it was a bit of a balance.'
NOONGAROKE ALSO HAD a profoundly important cultural role for a community experiencing constant death and mourning. Jim explains that 'everybody would come because they felt the need to support their loved ones and to socialise, express their grief with the family.' When Noongaroke started in the mid-1990s this support was sorely needed. These were hard times. The year 2000 was a tipping point, with funerals every week. Jim recalled that 'it was a bad year. That's the time I did sixty-two functions in one year. Supported sixty-two families.'
Deaths in the Noongar community are frequent and they touch everyone. They are often sudden and traumatic due to violence, homicide, suicide and motor accidents. Many more are caused by the slow toll of chronic disease and substance abuse. Life expectancy is short – Noongar leaders estimate seventeen years below the mainstream, so the elders' wisdom and knowledge are lost for future generations – and there are many tragic youth deaths as well. The grief and loss ripple out across the extended families exposing members to relentless levels of bereavement and loss.
Psychologist Judith Atkinson speaks of a chronic state of intergenerational trauma and unresolved grief that can be catastrophic for physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Rosemary Wanganeen cites statistics demonstrating alarming levels of Aboriginal physical and mental distress that can be manifested in suicide rates (Aboriginal males are 80 per cent more likely to commit suicide than the general population) and depression and stress (63 per cent of Aboriginal clients at Aboriginal medical services). She concludes that healing will only come 'once we heal our spirit from all of our past pains, traumas and tragedies.'
Noongar people understand only too well the politics of these deaths in their midst: the underlying pattern with roots in the violence of their colonial history, the loss of land, language and dignity, the break-up of families, forced assimilation and structural poverty. During the 1990s in Perth this was further exposed by the findings of the federal government's Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (nineteen cases were from Western Australia) and the Bringing Them Home report on Australia's stolen generations. These reports fired community emotions that spiralled further with the shock death of a well-loved political leader, Rob Riley, and alarm at awareness of the rising toll of deaths in the community.
NOONGAR CULTURE HAS protocols and rituals to relieve the flood of chaos and disorder that death brings and to restore spiritual and emotional balance. Death is a Sorry Time for the entire community. Everyone has to be informed, everyone wants to pay their respects and put in for the costs and everyone attends the funeral. Sometimes more than two thousand mourners are present. There is a proper required time for grieving before the funeral that can extend to a month or more, when the extended family puts aside normal activities to grieve.
Under any circumstances this is a stressful period. There are practical matters: making arrangements for the funeral and the wake; raising money for funeral costs; paying for family members to travel back home and making a place for them in already overcrowded dwellings, and catering for the constant stream of visitors paying their respects. Normal family tensions can become razor sharp. Simmering disagreements between families become physical. Bad spirits can threaten exhausted bodies and minds. For families trapped in a cycle of welfare poverty, the escalating expenses are an unrelenting source of anxiety and stress. They are also a grim reminder of the legacy of the politics of Noongar poverty and disadvantage. And hovering in the background is the knowledge that the final letting go of their loved one's spirit at the funeral is yet to come.
The seemingly endless deaths and funerals from the late 1990s stretched emotions and resources to breaking point. Noongaroke was an inspired solution – a unique way to take the pressure off. It punctuated the long mourning period by bringing families together in a safe and respectful space away from the constant grief and stress at home. There they could share memories and celebrate being Noongars together and find peace and solace in the powers of their great networks of kinship and family.
It was no coincidence that everyone took to Noongaroke. It revived a tradition of Noongar community public singing stretching back into the distant past. When Noongaroke started, Jim recalled that times were so bad that 'people never sung'. But then 'they come to Noongaroke and then, "Oh, I can do that." Get up and the voices that would come out from these people are just too deadly. There's some lovely voices, some real good singers.'
SONGS ARE INTRINSIC to Noongar oral tradition and memory. Early colonists recorded their love of singing. Explorer Sir George Grey observed that 'nothing can give a better idea of the character of these people than their songs' which are varied in form and convey in the simplest manner the most moving ideas. Phillip Chauncy, assistant surveyor in the Swan River Colony from 1841-53, described approaching Aboriginal camps on the river banks and hearing 'plaintive morning song – men as they sat sharpening their spears, the women as they lazily put together the smouldering embers, while others slept.' In the early 1900s, indefatigable recorder Daisy Bates wrote: 'There is no business in life among the natives in which song has not a part. Mourning, rejoicing, inciting to battle, mimicry, eulogies of personal prowess, jealousy, revenge, challenge and abuse – on all occasions, song is the medium of expression of their feelings.'
Community music making continued down the generations. In rural areas, families segregated in town camps and the bush made their own entertainment: corroborees with traditional singing and accompaniment and family dances round the campfire with singers, harmonica, piano accordion and guitar. In the early 1950s, when the policy of assimilation was in force but Perth was still a prohibited area for Noongar people, an Aboriginal political organisation, the Coolbaroo League, held popular dances at the Coolbaroo Club in a hall in East Perth with Noongar musicians like drummer Ron Kickett and singer Gladys Bropho and visiting Afro-American performers. New song and dance styles spread through the Noongar community at Coolbaroo dances organised in country towns. Noongar rock bands were playing in Perth in the 1970s for youth dances at the Aborigines Advancement Council Hall and in the 1990s at the Kyana festivals on Perth Esplanade. Whenever the opportunity arose, Noongar people joined in to sing and dance.
During the rush of deaths in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Noongaroke helped to clear distressed bodies and minds of sorrow and haunting spirits. Jim described how DJ'ing and singing at the events raised his sense of wellbeing: 'You see, singing is really good for therapy, you know, to really tear yourself inside and sing a good rock and roll song…and with all the people in the room, the temperature goes up.' This link between singing and wellbeing, known intuitively by singers, is the subject of new research demonstrating improved physical and mental fitness and relief from stress, depression and anxiety.
Noongaroke performances were special events that we were all privileged to attend. Sitting in the audience we were carried away by the power of the singing to unite us and to evoke memories and emotions. The feelings came rushing back to me when I was leafing through the book Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native Culture in Motion (Oxford University Press, 2000) by ethnographer historian Michael D McNally. The singers were Ojibwe elders from the White Earth reservation in Minnesota who formed a group to revive old mission hymns, which they sang at wakes in language and using customary singing styles. The performances brought spiritual reassurance and evoked a sense of political resistance and pride in Ojibwe identity and the unique musical combination united the gathering into one 'community in sound'. McNally explains that 'singing remembers'. Through a common sense of 'singing, listening and remembering' the songs created 'a bundle in which all those fleeting moments spread out over the years were wrapped into one'. The elders' singing awakened the healing 'spiritual forces of memory' that '…take the dispossession of history so urgently felt in the wake of a violent death and reconfigure it as merely a part of the whole story. It can refresh an exhausted gathering with the beauty of human voices and the recollection of previous generations…who faced similar struggles with fortitude and song.' As one Ojibwe elder explained, 'just when it seems you are in a space where one might no longer believe in anything, a [song] can make all the difference.'
THE FAMILIES GATHERED at Noongaroke events also experienced this healing in the beauty of Noongar voices singing much-loved songs as they joined in mourning the passing of yet another loved one with honour and respect and celebrated everything that really mattered to them.
Noongaroke stopped for a few years. The alarming peak of deaths subsided and the state government stepped in with a limited funeral fund. Jim pulled back after his sons warned him, 'Dad, we'll be burying yousoon.' He limited himself to organising music events and DJ'ing for Noongar parties. The community found new places to sing and dance, they set up bands and choirs and some auditioned for X-Factor and Australian Idol. But Noongaroke wasn't finished. Families were still struggling to cover funeral expenses and the deaths continued, this time with the heartbreaking rise of youth suicides in the community. Recently, Jim organised an event for families of one of these young suicide victims and once again Noongaroke created a 'safe place for shared grieving and lovely, really moving reaffirmations of love and support and a culturally requisite Sorry Time occasion for the community [and] it had a positive singular effect on the boy's mum. It was far more than just several hours of respite from her grief.'
Bates, Daisy 1936, 'My Natives and I Songs of the Dream-time', The West Australian newspaper, 26 February, p. 21.
Bodman, Keith 2014. Personal communication with Anna Haebich, email, 28th January.
Chauncy, Phillip 1878, 'Appendix notes and anecdotes' in Robert Brough SmythThe Aborigines of Victoria with Notes Relating To The Habits Of The Natives Of Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania Compiled from Various Sources for the Government of Victoria, Government Printer, Melbourne, p. 266.
Grey, George 1841, Journals of Two Expeditions Of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia, vol. 2, T. and W. Boone, London, p. 300.
Judith Atkinson 2002, Trauma Trails. Recreating Song Lines The Transgenerational Effect of Trauma in Indigenous Australia, Spinifex, North Melbourne.
McNally, Michael D. 2000, Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, And A Native Culture In Motion, Oxford University Press, New York, p. 193, 177, 189, 177-8
Morrison, Jim 2013, personal correspondence with Anna Haebich, for Celebrating Aboriginal Cultures Project, Curtin University, Perth, August.
Taylor, Diana 2006, 'Performance and/as History', The Drama Review, vol. 50, no. 1, Spring, pp. 67- 86.
Ugresic, Dubravka 2011, Karaoke Culture Essays, trans. from Croatian and with afterword by David Williams, Open Letter, Rochester.
Wanganeen, Rosemary 2010, 'Dealing with Loss, Grief and Trauma: Seven Phases to Healing', in Nola Purdie and Pat Dudgeon (eds) Working Together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice, Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, p. 268.
Xun, Xhou and Tarroco, Francesca 2007, Karaoke The Global Phenomenon, Reaktion Books, London.